Q&A with Artist Helen Zughaib
By Vicki Valosik
Helen Zughaib, currently based in Washington D.C., is known for her colorful gouache works that emphasize hope and human dignity, even while depicting themes of mass displacement, political upheaval, and war. Born in Beirut but forced to evacuate during the 1975 civil war, Zughaib spent much of her life in Europe and other parts of the Middle East before coming to the United States to earn her BFA at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. Her art has been exhibited at museums, galleries, embassies, and in private collections around the world, including at the White House, the Library of Congress, and the World Bank. Zughaib has served as a U.S. State Department Cultural Envoy to Europe and the Middle East and was recently awarded a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. In November, she gave a talk at CCAS on her visual documentation of the Arab Spring, after which she shared the following reflections on her work:
You have written about the importance of the arts in fostering dialogue between the Middle East and the United States. How do you use your art to try to build cross-cultural understanding?
Zughaib: At first, I was not creating art that consciously tried to achieve this, but as time went on and the U.S. experienced the tragedy of 9/11, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the backlash against Arabs and the Middle East, I felt the need to communicate even more strongly through my work. I felt as if “our” story was not actually being told by “us.” I began working on pieces to begin to open this dialogue, to invite the viewer in for a closer look, to create a space where dialogue could begin and both sides could inch a bit closer to a better understanding of one another. Through my work, I try to bring our shared humanity, values, traditions, and ultimately empathy for the “other.”
You have been documenting the Arab Spring—from the early days of hope to the devolution into war and displacement—building a collection of more than 70 paintings and installations. How does your art reflect the changes you’ve seen over time?
Zughaib:I finally returned to the Middle East after thirty-five years, the first time since our evacuation from the civil war in Lebanon in 1975. I went to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Shortly after my return to America, the “Arab Spring” began. Those early days of hope and optimism, the nascent struggles for a sense of equity and democracy, inspired my work. I chose a small flower as the motif I used in my paintings to express this new–found hope for change that spread from country to country after beginning in Tunisia. This flower motif continued in my paintings and installations, though it has changed and morphed somewhat, over the nearly eight years that the “Arab Spring” has gone on and devolved into the civil war in Syria, killing millions and forcing the largest refugee crisis in history. I feel that the desperation of the people fleeing their homes from war and starvation needs to be told, needs not to be forgotten, even as it does not make the front pages of newspapers anymore. I made a promise to one young Syrian boy who was forced to flee his village and, after two years, allowed to come to America. He visited me in my studio and we shared our stories with one another. I promised him I would keep telling his story, that I would not let people forget about him.
Women feature prominently in your work. What do you hope viewers will understand, or see anew, through your visual portrayals of Arab women?
Zughaib:Not only do I identify with women, being one, but in my experience I have seen the incredible strength, incredible perseverance many women display in the face of war and unimaginable circumstances. Often it is the women left behind, after or during war, who struggle to find refuge and shelter for their children, to find food, or to try to earn money to feed their families. To create some kind of normalcy for their children, to continue to teach them, even in the most adverse situations. Their strength, their beauty is powerful.
Vicki Valosik is the CCAS Multimedia and Publications Editor.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.